Yesterday was Father’s Day. It can be a very difficult day for many people– a day of loss, of regret, of anger, and bitterness. There is an epidemic of people growing up with no fathers, absentee fathers, temporary fathers, or abusive fathers. And it can give us a very distorted view of Our Heavenly Father.
They say that our earthly fathers often become the model of how we see God. If my father was passive, I may see God as apathetic or distant. If my father was demanding, I may see God as just, but not merciful. If my father was moody and unpredictable, I may see God as capricious and unfair. I grew up with a loving, gentle, and wise earthly father. But that doesn’t make me immune to distorted views of God. Dad was honest, a steady worker, a faithful husband, and a humble man of faith. But Dad wasn’t perfect– no father is.
My husband’s father was another terrific Dad. He was a great storyteller, a diligent worker, a man of great faith, wisdom, and gentle humor. And, although he was a great Dad and worthy of respect, he wasn’t perfect, either. Both fathers reflected aspects of God’s love to our families, and I’m so grateful for their legacies.
Our tendency to view God through the lens of our earthly experiences can distort our view of who God is, but it can also distort our view of who WE are to God. David and I each grew up confident of our earthly fathers’ love and care, but that doesn’t mean that God somehow loved us more than my neighbor whose father died when he was just a child, or more that his friend whose father was cold and distant, or our friend whose father was a respected minister. God’s love doesn’t depend on how we view Him, or how we view our family circumstances. God’s love comes from who He is. And He desires a close, eternally loving relationship with each of us– one that transcends human shortcomings and limitations.
My mom was once asked if she had a “favorite” child. And her answer was, “I love them all the same, and I love them all differently.” God’s love for us as a father is the same. His love for each of us is eternal, incomprehensible, and constant. But it is also uniquely demonstrated in the way He guides us, disciplines us, and shows His compassion for us. We may never know the love of our earthly fathers; we may only know their failures, or their memory, or the emptiness where they should have been. But God is the ultimate Good, Good Father– the one we can always look up to; the one who always has our back.
As much as I loved my Dads, and miss their advice and laughter, steady guidance, and examples, they cannot compare to the incredible love and wisdom of Our Father. No matter what legacy our earthly fathers have left us, God’s love is better, wider, deeper, and more powerful.
The Bible is filled with images of family–long lists of “begats” and genealogies, parables about sons and fathers, brothers, weddings, brides and grooms…God is even described as our Father, with Christ as “the son.”
One of my hobbies is genealogy– tracing my family’s roots back through several generations and several different places. While the Bible warns that we should not get caught up in “endless” and vain genealogies that lead to false pride and foolish divisions (1 Tim. 1:4/Titus 3:9), there are many good reasons to pay attention to families, family histories, and family dynamics.
First, the family is God’s design– God instituted marriage, parenthood, and family units. It is God’s will and purpose that we should not live in isolation and self-absorption, but learn to depend on and be responsible to others. Families honor, protect, love, provide, comfort, teach, encourage, build and work together. Even in a broken world, filled with dysfunctional and chaotic family relationships, the purpose and design of “family” is still part of God’s good and perfect plan for living. Broken families and toxic relationships are not a failure of God’s plan– they are the result of Sin’s power to distort and corrupt the Good that only God can create. The great news is that God also has the power to restore and redeem individuals and families; offering “rebirth”, adoption, and an eternal “inheritance” within His family!
Second, families can teach us about the astounding and limitless love of God. There is something about the bonds of familial love that stretch us beyond our regular capacity to hope, to sacrifice, to share, to grieve, to endure, and to forgive. Who has seen a mother or father go hungry so their child can eat; or a sister or daughter donate her kidney or bone marrow to help heal a family member? Or a father carry his son who could not walk, or a wife who visits her aging husband when he no longer knows her face? How can we see such devotion and not be struck by how much greater, wider, deeper, and more eternal the Father’s love is for each of us?
Third, family (particularly the idea of genealogies and long family histories) teaches us the eternal nature of God. We live our lives as part of three or four generations– a span of 70 or 80 years for many of us–and we concentrate our efforts on “making our mark” for less than that entire span. But even the longest of our lives are so short in the span of God’s plan for His people. We have one lifespan to play an important role in the story of centuries. When we fail to understand that role, we can miss our sense of purpose in life. Sometimes, we overestimate our own importance or miss the significance of our own legacy. Even “important” people are forgotten, or have their legacies tarnished or rewritten in the pages of history. And those people who never made the history books are often the inspiration for actions and movements that span generations and change nations. When I study the history of my own family, I find lives that were cut short by war or disease– yet these lives shaped the lives (or were the lives) of my ancestors, and without them, I would not be who or how or where I am today. Maiden aunt, baby brother, empty seat at the table– every life touches others in ways that God alone truly comprehends. “Coincidental” meetings, “unplanned” children, migration patterns, epidemics– all loom large in a single generation, but they all become part of the fabric of each person’s “history.”
Lastly, genealogy reminds us that we are all one enormous family! There is so much talk on the news and online about all our differences– language, culture, skin tone, beliefs, skills, abilities, interests, even diets!– and it is important to note that God loves variety and created us each with unique and precious differences to reflect His infinite character. But sin twists our differences into conflicts; sin spreads lies about God’s character, and thus, about how we (or others) reflect, honor, understand, acknowledge, or obey our amazing creator. Differences may cause division in our broken world, but they do not cancel God’s mercy or limit the reach of His love for us all.
This was brought home to me in a small way this past week, as I was preparing for two important reunions. My high school class celebrated the 35th anniversary of our graduation in 1984. I saw friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in weeks, months, or, in some cases, 35 years! But it struck me that our class is very much like a family– we grew up together; we learned to get along (most of the time), to share, to work together, to understand and appreciate our differences and our unique gifts–we send birthday greetings and share pictures, we laugh together, grieve together, share fond memories and special connections with one another. We pray for one another, argue with one another, encourage one another, and challenge one another. There are some who have distanced themselves–whether through physical distance or emotionally– from the rest of us. Some have even ended their earthly journeys. But that doesn’t make them any less a part of our class/our family. We are short and tall, thin and stout, hairy and bald, dark and light complected; we are single, married, divorced, and widowed– some with children still at home; some with no children at all. We are rich and poor, healthy and ill, walking around with scars and wounds and unresolved questions, arrogant assumptions, or chips on our shoulders. And we are optimists and mentors, healers and teachers, helpers and protectors. We are loud and quiet, social and task-oriented, driven and laid-back, dreamers and doers. And in my genealogy research, I have made genetic and marriage connections to about 1/3 of them! We really ARE family, and I can show how we are related! How small would this world seem if we looked at our brothers and sisters across the world, and realize that those connections are so much greater than the differences that divide us?
The second reunion I attended this weekend was “family.” All of us descended (or married to descendants, or adopted by descendants) from my great-grandparents. Not all of us were there– in fact, this was mostly just one “branch” of the family, and a few “twigs”. We estimate that there are nearly 500 people who can claim the same ancestral “roots” from the same two people, and this “branch” contains over 250 of them! Once again, we don’t all look , or act, or think alike– some are tall, some are tattooed, some are old, some are newborns, some argue about college football teams, or politics. But we love each other, encourage each other, and many of us share our prayers and concerns and joys and pains. My great-grandparents (and all their children) left a legacy of love and faith that continues to influence and inspire the fourth, fifth and sixth generation to follow!
When we pray for others, we are always praying for our family! Praying for our neighbors and classmates and co-workers– we are praying for family! Praying for our enemies, for strangers, for those who look and speak differently than us–We are praying for family! May God give us eyes to see and hearts to love our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and even the “long lost family members” and lift them up in prayer to the One who loves us and wants to bring us all into His family!
The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.
It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.
Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.
So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.
Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!
If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.
Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!
Jacob is a multi-faceted Biblical character; he is full of flaws and makes bad life choices, yet God blesses him and chooses him over his brother to be one of the patriarchs of his chosen people. In fact, the nation of Israel takes its name from the new name God chooses to give to Jacob. So it is helpful to study Jacob’s life. We can learn a lot from his interactions with God and others.
Today, I want to look at Jacob’s (sometimes) dysfunctional home life. We think of the patriarchs as having blessed lives and few, if any, flaws. But God’s blessings are not earned. They are a free gift, freely given to imperfect people. Jacob’s father, Isaac, was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. But Isaac’s home life was not blissful. Isaac was taunted and resented by his older brother, Ishmael, leading to Ishmael being exiled. And he had several younger brothers who were sent away as they grew older (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+21%3A8-20&version=NIV and https://biblia.com/bible/Genesis25.1-6) He was devastated by the death of his mother, Sarah. And, while he was much-loved, and the son of promise, he was also indulged, isolated, and coddled. He was the “winner” among all his brothers.
As for Jacob’s mother, Rebecca– her family history was dominated by a cunning and dishonest older brother (more about him in a future post!) She was given a choice to leave her family and become Isaac’s wife (almost unheard of freedom for a woman at that time, and certainly not her brother’s idea!) She was a good wife to Isaac and was a great comfort to him in his grief after the death of his mother, Sarah. But when she became pregnant, she soon realized that something was happening inside her womb– something beyond her ability to understand; something that would test her (and Isaac) to their limit.
God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. And he promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to do things for God “their way,” when they got impatient and fearful. Isaac’s birth was confirmation that God’s blessings would come “His” way, and not through human efforts. Isaac knew all of this, but there was more he would need to learn about how God operates.
In Isaac’s family, God underscored the truth of His character– God blesses those whom he loves. God’s blessings are not earned; they do not come in predictable patterns or for reasons based solely on human logic. God’s favor rests not on the “deserving” but on those he chooses to bless. So Isaac and Rebecca have twin boys. According to human tradition, the eldest son inherits all the property and blessings and becomes the patriarch of the next generation. The younger son serves the elder or else leaves to start his own family. Over the centuries, this patterns has caused wars, as brother fights brother for control over land, rights, crowns, and more.
We have no record of Isaac consulting God over this situation, but Rebecca does– and she gets a surprising answer! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A+19-28&version=NIV Even in the womb, the boys are fighting, but God tells Rebecca that the oldest will serve the younger! Both boys will become strong nations, but they will be separated, and they will continue to struggle throughout their histories. It is the younger, seemingly weaker underdog who will be God’s choice to continue the line of promise begun with Abraham.
Even in their names, Jacob “loses” to Esau. Esau is named for his bright red hair, a mark of distinction, and a reason to stand out and be a leader. Jacob is named after his action of grabbing his brother by the heel as they come out of the womb. It is a disparaging name, a constant reminder that he is second, and lesser, and always lagging behind his brother.
Today, as I look at Jacob and Esau, I am reminded that I pray to the God of Jacob. He is the God of the underdog; the God who sees and hears the outcast and the downtrodden; God of the disparaged one; the one who feels left out or left behind, even in his own family– even by his own father. It’s not that Isaac hated Jacob or abused him or denied him. But his affection for his sons was shaped by human traditions and his own preferences. God’s love is pure and unchanging! I am comforted in knowing that when God sees me, He always looks with the eyes of perfect love!
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
We don’t normally spend much time studying Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Yet the story of Hannah and Samuel begins with this man. Not only that, but it begins with a lesson in his genealogy and heritage. We learn that Elkanah was from Ramathaim (a town in the hill country of the tribal lands of Ephraim). As a Zuphite, however, Elkanah (and thus his son, Samuel) were also descended from the Kohathites, and were of the Levitical priestly line.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. We don’t know why Elkanah had two wives, but we know that the other wife, Peninnah, had children; likely several (see verse 4). Hannah, however, was barren– and this was “because the Lord had closed her womb.” There is nothing to indicate that this a result of any sin on the part of Hannah or Elkanah–there is no reason given for God’s decision to keep Hannah from becoming a mother. There is also no reason to believe that Elkanah was angry or disappointed or embarrassed by Hannah’s condition. In the society of that time, a man could divorce his wife for minor offenses; in this society, barrenness would be seen as a major defect, a stigma, and grounds for divorce. Hannah faced the possibility of rejection, abandonment, and condemnation from her husband. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah, and honored her with a double portion for their yearly offering.
Even with a loving and supportive husband, however, Hannah is inconsolable. And it is here that I think many of do a disservice to Elkanah. The Bible tells us that Peninnah taunted Hannah and drove her to tears. When she would not eat, Elkanah asked some basic questions. Why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? and the one that always makes me cringe– Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?
These questions always bothered me. It seems to me that Elkanah is either clueless or in denial about the bitter rivalry going on under his very roof. And his questions seem to underline his ignorance.
A closer look at the context, however shows that Elkanah may be more a victim of our modern cultural understanding than a victim of his own deficiencies as a husband. It says on the day that Elkanah was to sacrifice– an indication that he was inside the tabernacle and on duty –that Peninnah was taunting Hannah. If Elkanah was ignorant of the torment Hannah faced, it may very well be that it was being kept from him by Hannah herself. As a woman, I’m also guilty of expecting that my husband will “pick up” on non-verbal clues, or otherwise intuitively “understand” why I am depressed, or tired, or angry. Husbands, as loving and attentive as they may be, are not mind readers, and I have been guilty of making mine play a frustrating guessing game as he seeks to offer help. Men are also more likely to start by asking questions to “get to the root” of the problem, when we are seeking comfort and understanding, before we seek a solution. Elkanah and Hannah are no different in this respect than most of us today. Hannah is not a superwoman–she cries at the party and won’t eat. Elkanah is not a superman–he can’t “fix” Hannah’s sadness, nor can he feel the total depth of her despair. Finally, Elkanah asks a question that gives us a window into his own secret anguish. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I want to rest here for a minute. I think we tend to get caught up in the words, and miss the heart of this plea. What is he really expressing? I don’t think Elkanah is trying to exaggerate his worth, nor is he trying to minimize Hannah’s desperation. But there is a heartfelt cry to be “enough.” So many times, when we face infertility, miscarriage, or the loss of a child, we focus on the mother’s feelings of loss and emptiness. In this story, we look at Hannah as being an outsider in her own family– the wife who “can’t”–the one who is in distress. Elkanah’s question may even seem insensitive and arrogant. Listen to it again, though, and you can hear the broken heart of a man who loves his wife, even as she is pulling away and allowing her grief to consume her. “Don’t I mean more to you?” “Am I not enough to keep you from despair?” Yes, Elkanah has children with Peninnah, but he longs for happiness and fulfillment in his relationship with Hannah. The Bible never says how many children Peninnah had, but it seems clear that in Elkanah’s eyes, Hannah was worth far more than “ten sons.”
I am broken as I think of times when I have been so consumed in my own grief and “neediness” that I have pushed away those who love me most, shutting them out, and making them question their own worth.
How many times have I done the same to the Lover of My Soul?
How many times do I focus on the one thing I don’t have, or the two annoying people in my life, and ignore the blessings God has poured out? When was the last time I made an extra effort to communicate to my husband how much he DOES mean to me, instead of leaving him to wonder? How many tears have I poured out with my face turned away from my Loving Father?
Hannah’s husband asks some leading questions– they lead Hannah to collapse before the only one who can bring healing and joy. Hannah’s prayer comes from a point of being broken– far more than needing a child, Hannah needs the love and understanding her husband longs to give her, and the joy and blessing her Heavenly Father has been waiting to offer.
We know the end of this story– God opens Hannah’s womb, giving her and her husband a son who will go on to play a key role in Israel’s history and God’s story of redemption. He continues to bless Hannah and Elkanah with other children, and, hopefully, a renewed relationship of joy and commitment.
May our prayer journey today lead us toward the Love of our Good Father– whether from a place of brokenness, need, confusion, joy, frustration, or victory.
Yesterday was my Grandmother’s birthday. She passed away over 20 years ago, but I still cherish the memories I have of my time with her. She was a woman of quiet dignity, gentle wisdom, and deep love for her family and neighbors.
While I was still in my late teens and early twenties, my Gram started getting me interested in genealogy. She had amazing stories that had been passed down through several generations, but she was unsure how many of them were “true” and how many had devolved into legend and half-truth. Her stories became the first framework I used to research our family’s roots. Over thirty years later, I have books and charts and databases filled with names, dates, stories, photos, mysteries, dead ends, twists and turns, surprises and more. I have traced my own family, my husband’s family, related families, possible connections to famous people in history, and mapped out many of the locations where our families lived over the centuries.
God created and instituted families, and I’m so grateful for mine. In spite of the many tragedies and skeletons I’ve found along the way, one thing is clear. God’s design for families is good and leads to hope, security, and fruitfulness.
All families are unique, but the design for families– the traditional family model–has been pretty consistent throughout the centuries and even across cultures. It may not always be the “nuclear” family of a mother and father and two or three children in a single household. Sometimes it is made up of multiple generations or nuclear groups sharing a house or living communally, and there have always been blended families, or single-parent households, but there is a consistent expectation of being able to trace one’s mother’s family line and father’s family line through at least two or three generations– knowing their names, where they were born, and when they lived and died.
As technology is advancing to make this kind of genealogical research even easier, society is pulling away from the traditional family model and making it harder and harder to find one’s “roots.” Children live with a series of adults– “aunties” and “dads” who bear no biological relationship and no lifelong commitment to them. Children whose fathers are nameless, faceless DNA donors, or whose parents left them to chase a career, or be with a new lover or a consuming addiction. Grown children rebel and leave their families behind to mix and mingle with other free-floating adults, never desiring to continue a legacy of family ties. Many people look upon this as “progress”– changing the definition of family…ironically, they use the term “relative” when talking about values and definitions, even as they redefine what it means to be a “relative.”
God doesn’t love us less if we don’t come from a traditional family– certainly, He is the God of the orphan, the fatherless, and the widow.
Psalm 68: 4-6: (NIV, courtesy of biblegateway.com)
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds rejoice before him—his name is the Lord. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
God wants us in families– He wants us to grow and be fruitful. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is a phrase often used about family members being alike in their thinking or actions or habits. And so it is with families who grow and live together. We may “fall” away from our birth families, and move miles away, but we will produce a new tree with the same fruit– fruit that nourishes communities and societies and new families.
However, when we lose the pattern of families as God set them up, we lose a lot of other good things:
A sense of belonging–sure we all belong to the entire human race, and we shouldn’t become exclusive and tribal at the expense of our neighbors and others, but there is a point at which we want to know where we “fit” in the scheme of things.
Support and encouragement–I love my family; and I even like most of them! But I recognize a bond that cannot be broken lightly, and it keeps pulling us together in good times and bad. We are there for baby showers, funerals, weddings, house-warmings, graduations, and reunions. As our family has grown, we can’t always be at every event, but I will never be without anyone. There is a horrible epidemic of people who ARE living and dying alone– no family to visit or be visited; no family to talk to, or argue with, or share memories. This breaks my heart, and it breaks the heart of the God who made us to be “relational.”
History and legacy–My life has a purpose and fits into a plan. I am uniquely “ME”, yet I am also a daughter, sister, wife, step-mom, grandma, aunt, and cousin (and second-cousin once-removed, etc.). I didn’t just appear out of thin air, and I won’t disappear without leaving a trace. The choices I make don’t just impact my life. This is important regardless of my history–I am the one who can change a bad legacy into a great heritage, or ruin a heritage and leave a legacy of pain for those I leave behind.
Role models–Having roles within a family prepares us for having roles at work and in our communities– we learn to speak out, and to listen; we learn to ask for and offer help; we learn to respect others and earn the respect of those around us. We don’t learn these lessons perfectly, because there are no perfect families. But families provide a structure and pattern for teaching life lessons that is time-tested and approved. Busy parents are aided by grandparents, uncles, and older siblings and cousins in modeling good behavior, correcting bad behavior, and answering questions ranging from “the birds and the bees” to how to braid hair or tie a necktie. When that structure is missing, young people fall through the cracks in ways both small and crucial.
Seeing how God’s love works through the ages. God doesn’t just love in spurts and impulses. God’s love is eternal, and meant to be shared from generation to generation and spread from family to family.
I pray today that, just as my grandmother encouraged my love of family, that I will leave a legacy of love and faith for others in my life– those who are family by blood, and those who have become the family of my heart. And I hope that others will pray for our families to stay true and strong and fruitful, too.
Yesterday was Father’s Day. Father’s Day can be very difficult for many people– in my case, it can be a reminder of how much I miss my Dad, who passed away 20 years ago. Some of my friends have had recent experience in losing a beloved father. For some, the hurt is still there after 50 years, or 70.
For others, it is a difficult day, not because they grieve the loss of a father to death, but because they grieve the absence of a loving father– an absentee father, an unknown father, an abusive father, or a distant, cold, or critical father.
At this point, I generally point to the Father who is eternally loving and faithful– Our Heavenly Father is God of the fatherless and the orphan, the God of restoration and reconciliation. No matter where our earthly fathers are or have been, God is always right by our side.
All that is true, but I want to share something that’s been bothering me. I scrolled down my FB feed, and listened in at church, and talked to a restaurant owner, and looked at the card section at the store. And there’s something missing. It’s not that we don’t honor fathers. I saw a lot of wonderful tributes to dads, husbands, brothers, and sons. I saw sons sitting with their recently widowed father at church; a son honoring his father by taking him out to eat; fathers and sons wearing awesome matching shirts with fun messages, and lots of old photos of dads with their families in years past, as well as newer pictures of dads with goofy toddlers, and pretty girls in prom dresses, and holding newborns.
We honor fathers, but we do not honor Fatherhood. We seem awkwardly proud and surprised when fathers actually show up and do their job. We make it seem easy, even brainless, in comparison to the work of a mother. In fact, there are those who argue that Fatherhood is not necessary for family life. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is POSSIBLE to rear children in a single-parent household (male or female). It is possible to raise strong and healthy children without the presence of a father (or mother). But that doesn’t make it desirable or advantageous for a child, or for society.
What are we losing as a society when we engage in (or stay on the sidelines for) a war on Fatherhood? When we make excuses for bad fathers or mothers who choose to denigrate the men who gave life to their children? What happens when “dad” becomes, not the name of a single influential person in your life, but the name of whichever man is currently living with mom, AND also the man who sees you every other weekend? What happens when the media consistently portray moms as hardworking and wise, and dads are the comic relief?
We are losing the next generation of fathers; the next generation of men with drive and passion to work for something beyond their own whims and wants. We are losing the next generation of women, too– as they struggle to be both mothers and fathers, or choose to be neither because it’s too much trouble to do it alone. We are losing a sense of what it means to be a Father– the honor, the responsibility, the joy and pride, the reward. Worst of all, we are losing the examples of fathers who through their words and actions, are pointing others to our Heavenly Father. God is not a baby-daddy; He is not an absentee father or an every-other-weekend Father. He is not a faceless provider of money for new clothes and college textbooks. He is not a goofy guy who tells bad jokes and pats you on the head once in a while. He is not the one who never shows up for your game or your dance recital because he’s too busy playing golf with the guys.
This isn’t universally true– and I’m so grateful for the men, young and old, who are staying the course, setting the examples, and standing out like beacons of light. And I don’t wish to belittle the women who have had to be both mother and father due to death or other circumstances beyond their control. But we desperately need good fathers. We need fathers who will fight the good fight; not fathers who are Missing In Action. We need active, responsible, faithful Dads. But we need to pray for them. We need to honor them. We need to encourage and support them. More than just one day a year….
How can I love Jesus more than I already do? If I can love him more, does that mean that I don’t love Him enough? That I don’t really love Him as much as I think I do? That I love Him the wrong way? How can I “love thee more dearly…day by day”
I want to explore the second prayer in the folk rock song “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” (see yesterday’s post). When I write about pursuing prayer, this is a major focus of the pursuit– to develop my love for Jesus. But there’s more to it than just spending more time, or even “better” time in prayer.
I love my husband, and that love grows over the years– not because we are in an eternal “honeymoon” period, where life is rosy and all I know about him is the wonderful image I’ve built up–but because in living with him, working with him, even struggling with him, I learn to value who he really is. I learn about qualities I never knew he had. I learn to trust him and respect his judgment; I learn about the deepest part of his heart that he only shares with those closest to him. And even though I learn about his faults, I see him desiring to be the best that he can be. In his turn, my husband does the same with me– learning my strengths and weaknesses. Together we learn how to work together to strengthen and support each other. We even learn how to argue better!
But we all know marriages (and no marriage is immune) where doubt, distrust, disdain, and despair creep in. The very qualities that attracted us in the beginning become sore spots that tear us apart. The joy is swallowed up in little hurts that go unresolved; little misunderstandings that grow into lengthy silences and slammed doors. Struggles that should bring us together cause us to run to separate corners. Our feelings change, our hopes are dashed, and our relationship crumbles
Relationships require trust–if I say that I love God, but I don’t trust Him, I’m not being honest with myself. If I pray to Him, but I don’t really think He’s listening; if I read His word, but make excuses for my continued disobedience–I don’t really love Him. I may idolize Him, even worship Him. But I don’t really love Him.
Unlike a marriage partner, family member, or close friend, God’s love for us never changes. We never have to pray that Jesus should love US more dearly. It’s impossible. The same love that spoke the universe into being and designed you to be the awesome and unique person you are, is the same love that stretched out his arms so they could be nailed to the cross– the same love that calls out to you no matter what you’ve done or who you are and offers you peace, joy, and rest. Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of measuring how I feel about Him from day to day, but spending each day learning to know Him better for who He is and not just what He has done or what He can do for me. The prayer should be for me to really learn better how to honor Him, how to trust Him, how to obey Him, praise Him, listen to Him, and walk close to him.
Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration. But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year. Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers. There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.
I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.). I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor. So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.
But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”
Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year. My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”
My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten. God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died. Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.” Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children. God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers. He sees you too. He hears you. He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.
More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort. He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace. He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love. God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.
God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.
My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather. We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident. Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94. Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.
And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.
Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news. Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.
“Even so, it is well with my soul.” The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org ) The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign. Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead. Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank. All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy. As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down. At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments. Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us. No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.
God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us. But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort. He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him. He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad. He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”